By Rachel E. Blackburn
One of my all-time favorite Seinfeld episodes featured the dentist character Tim Watley, played by Bryan Cranston. Watley begins making Jewish jokes after a recent conversion to Judaism. Seinfeld discovers this, is clearly bothered by it, and in response, visits one of Watley’s fellow patients, Father Curtis (sitting in a confessional booth to do so). After Seinfeld shares with Father Curtis the humorous antics of Watley, Father Curtis asks Seinfeld, “And this offends you as a Jew?” And Seinfeld responds, “No, it offends me as a comedian.” As one who was raised Jewish myself, complete with Bat Mitzvah, years of Hebrew school and the requisite trip to Israel, I always secretly revered that statement, however silly it may be. I might go so far as to say I found it admirable and noble; all hail in the name of laughter! I readily identified with the notion that Seinfeld ultimately held his identity as a comedian closer to his heart than that of his ethnic and cultural heritage.
The opportunity came to test my commitment to comedy above all, however, when I recently co-directed (with Ms. Gina Sandi-Diaz) a play titled The Last Cyclist. The Last Cyclist, written by Karel Svenk, is a comedy borne out of the Holocaust; specifically, written and rehearsed inside Theresienstadt, one of many concentration camps in operation roughly from 1940 – 1945 during WWII. What sort of authorial voice do we have in Karel Svenk, who in the midst of starvation, degradation, torture and dehumanization, found the energy and inspiration to write a comedy? What might he have to laugh about in his given circumstances? And, beyond all this – how did I approach directing such a piece nearly seventy years later after its initial conception?
Karel Svenk, the man who found the motivation and enthusiasm for laughter despite everything, was a Czech prisoner. What little we know of Svenk – a comedian, actor, and playwright – was that he was charismatic, funny, goofy in the best of ways, and inspiring to his fellow prisoners. Naomi Patz, who has reconstructed and reimagined his work (the script adaptation of The Last Cyclist which I directed in the theatre), has often stated in her discussions of Svenk that he was something akin to a European Charlie Chaplin, in terms of his physical comedy. Were he to be alive today, she says, we might read him as analogous to a Robin Williams: someone whose manic energy was infectious, and could somehow shine light in even the darkest of corners. Svenk was someone who could readily demonstrate for us the value of comedy as a tool for overcoming the worst cruelties of life, in the skillful manner of a true artist and comedian.
This essay begins with a story about the American frontier—one that most of you may already know—and I’d like to use it to try to explain why it is that we remember a few particular 19th Century humorists and NOT the 30 or 40 others who were also writing and publishing popular work during the pre-Civil War years and later.
Post-Revolutionary War America was a place of constantly shifting frontiers both to the west and to the south. In a given year, the western frontier might be Upstate New York and gradually moving westward, with the southern frontier in Virginia gradually moving further and further south; in later years, it became anything west of the Mississippi River as the influx of population pushed the borders westward and southward. In order to understand the humor that comes out of these liminal (border) spaces, one needs to think just a bit about what the frontier(s) were, how things operated there, and who migrated to those spaces. As the “new” settlements became more populated and the opportunities for jobs and wealth became less plentiful, pioneers moved further south and west in search of prosperity. Typically, we think of these folks as the rugged individualists who brought their skills and strength to bear on carving civilization out of the wilderness. In many cases, this was true.
However, in addition to the skilled laborers and farmers, the frontiers also attracted a seedier element–the con man and the pettifogger, the liar and the cheat, the gambler and the speculator–into these newly settled territories. Often they were one step ahead of criminal charges, lynching, or tar-and-feathering, and searching for a fresh start somewhere where they were an unknown quantity, and where new victims for their fraud were readily available. Given the nature of boom-towns on the frontier, it stands to reason that these would serve as topics for humor writers who inhabited that space.
These borderlands—primarily Georgia, Louisiana, and Alabama for the purposes of this study—are the regions from which those authors we call the Southwestern humorists sprang and flourished. When we speak of these humorists today, three or four of them remain and stand in for the whole of southwestern humor from 1830-1865 or so. Thomas Bangs Thorpe, for example, is still often anthologized and read in high schools and colleges occasionally. His “Big Bear of Arkansas” survives as a representative of the rough and ready braggart type of the American frontier. His language is a bit crude, his story quite exaggerated, and its conclusion a bit off-color. George Washington Harris’s Sut Lovingood tales are also occasionally anthologized. Students still respond to Sut with a mixture of horror and fascination, and most of the tales—“Parson John Bullen’s Lizards” comes to mind—demonstrate written slapstick humor at its best; and Sut’s character, while not exactly a con man, walks a fine line between “good fun” and that which is legal and/or moral. Similarly, Johnson J. Hooper’s Simon Suggs remains a memorable and sometimes anthologized character in American humor. If Sut often straddles the line between propriety and crudity, Simon Suggs broad-jumps that line, happily defrauding the country folk and slaves at every opportunity. His tag line is: “It is good to be shifty in a new country.” What these most often remembered and read authors have in common is the use of vernacular language, themes that involve fighting, fraudulent horse swaps, practical jokes that range from the mean spirited to the downright dangerous, and a frame featuring a narrator more refined and educated than the characters of their stories.
November 30, 2015 will be celebrated as the 180th birthday of one Mark Twain—novelist, humorist, and all around American celebrity. I, for one, will not be celebrating.
You see, I recently finished up a book about Mark Twain, and I know, for a
fact, that Mark Twain was born on February 3, 1863. Or thereabouts. No one knows for certain, but that is as certain as we can be, so that is enough. And not so much born, but created, or launched…inaugurated…catapulted…
That means that this February 3, 1863 will be Mark Twain’s 153rd birthday, which is not that fancy of a number, but it is getting up there for someone still so famous as to have people writing books about him—and more importantly, people reading books by him.
Sure, everyone knows that “Mark Twain” was really the pseudonym of Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Even early in his career, almost everyone knew that, often using the names interchangeably, as most Americans still do. Not as many people know the names Samuel Clemens used an abandoned before creating Mark Twain: “Grumbler,” “Rambler,” “Saverton,” “W. Epaminondas Adrastus Blab,” “Sergeant Fathom,” “Quintus Curtis Snodgrass,” “Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass,” and “Josh.” Selecting “Mark Twain” was clearly a wise choice, although the name would have had a second, nautical meaning for many nineteenth century folk.
Samuel Clemens mixed up the use of his given name and his chosen name—making the whole distinction a mush of confusion that is either a bonanza of psychological material or, alternately, meaningless. For most people, I would guess the distinction is meaningless trivia, which is fine. I’m just happy people still know and read books by Mark Twain. But, I for one, will still grumble when people wish Mark Twain a “Happy Birthday” each November 30th, and I will still try to correct them by pointing out that the “Mark Twain” they refer to really was born—or created—on February 3rd, 1863.
But what does it matter?
Several years ago, we posted a collection of humorous responses to President Obama’s change to support gay marriage. For a follow up, here are some of the humorous responses to the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize marriage across the country.
Responses seem to fall into a few general categories:
1) Celebration of the ruling
2) Comments on the Supreme Court, pro and con, but with no real connection to the recent Obamacare decision (see bottom for examples of responses to that)
3) Connections to the questions of race and the Confederate flag
4) Satire on the institution of marriage
4) Reactions of opponents
Here are a few cartoons and memes that show examples of these trends.
And here are some web-based humorous responses:
Today, May 7, 2015 is the 70th Anniversary of Germany’s Surrender. In the context of Humor in America, I feel it’s appropriate to mark the occasion with a review of Sam Sackett‘s book, “Adolph Hitler in Oz.”
Don’t let the title scare you. It’s marvelous, worthwhile read. The premise is basic: With Germany on the brink of its demise, Adolph Hitler fakes his own death and find himself–without fanfare- in the metropolis of Oogaboo on the outskirts of Oz.
In juxtaposition reminiscent of an off-kilter dream, Laurel and Hardy are the first to greet him. Struck by the innocence of the Ozians, and true to his nature, Hitler sets about to convince the “meat people” that they have long been oppressed by a conspiracy of “non-meat people” (including the Scarecrow). But coping with talking animals, raising an army of pacifists and conquering a utopian kingdom that fares well without money is a path fraught with obstacles every step of the way. The unpredictable twists make this story hard to put down.
Though the morality in this tale is painted in simple black and white, Hitler’s encounters otherworldly landscapes, fanciful creatures and lily-hearted eccentrics are rich, nuanced, and witty. The vibe of the book is hard to describe. Think “Dr. Strangelove” meets a secular C.S. Lewis meets Animal Farm, chockablock with Abbott and Costello style interchanges and alive with the imagination and whimsy of an original Oz book. This uncanny exploration of ideologies and human nature makes many interesting points but never gets preachy or mired. Coming in at just under 300 lively pages, it’s a fun, accessible read unlike any other.
Reissued by New York-based Royal Publisher of Oz this children’s story for adults was first released in 2011. The new edition, available in paperback, has been edited to correct minor discrepancies pointed out by L. Frank Baum devotees who know Oz from O-Z. Its layout and illustrations by Patricio Carbajal are reminiscent of the books in Baum’s complete Oz series I discovered in our small neighborhood library years ago. This edition also contains a bonus author’s essay entitled “The Utopia of Oz.”
Today marks the 90th birthday of Hal Holbrook–the man who has been Mark Twain longer than Samuel Clemens was Mark Twain. In his honor, I am rerunning a post from several years ago. For more on Holbrook’s career, see Mark Dawidziak’s columns on Holbrook adding new material here and by the numbers here. And information on a documentary well worth seeing here.
I did not mention in the original post my experience seeing Holbrook perform as Mark Twain. As a scholar who studied Mark Twain’s performance, I was skeptical about seeing Holbrook–not because he is anything less than respected but because his version of Mark Twain is a different version than the one I studied. Holbrook’s Mark Twain is the older, wiser, white-suited-er version. The 1860s and 1870s version who lectured on platforms and lyceums across the country and in England was a different figure. So I wanted to get a mental image of that man in my grasp before seeing Holbrook.
I can’t remember the exact circumstances of the evening–my wife suffers through enough Mark Twain in editing and reading and living with me, so she was not there. And the tickets were more money than we had to spend easily, being end-stage Ph.D. candidates. I sat in the beautiful Paramount Theater in Austin, notepad in hand, ready to be skeptical, thinking, “I know Mark Twain as a performer. Let’s see what you got, Holbrook.”
He awed me. In the end, my notes were mostly empty. I laughed. I was moved. A passage of Huck Finn I had taught and read a dozen times unfurled in a whole new light. He did pretty well.
If you have the chance, go see Hal Holbrook perform as Mark Twain–he is performing tonight, on his 90th birthday.
Hal has performed the character of Mark Twain longer than Samuel Clemens. Much has been written and said about the importance of Mark Twain Tonight! and Hal’s performance as Mark Twain (not to mention his other wonderful acting work).
I want to offer my own story of meeting Mr. Holbrook in Elmira at the 6th International Conference on the State of Mark Twain Studies (which should be renamed, “Mark Twain Summer Camp,” in my humble opinion). For a graduate student, Mark Twain Summer Camp already meant meeting top scholars in the field–rock stars, if you will (if you are a nerd, that is). But Hal Holbrook is as big a star as you will find for Mark Twain fans, unless the man himself were to appear.
I was convinced that my panel would be empty, as it was scheduled opposite that panel at which Mark Dawidziak would be discussing “Mark Twain Tonight!” with Hal Holbrook in the audience. I was thus shocked and delighted when Lou Budd walked into my panel just as I began to give my paper (causing me to lose my place for a moment). For Twain scholars, you can’t get much more important than Lou Budd.
Hal Holbrook Speaking at Mark Twain Summer Camp
Photo Courtesy Patrick Ober
This video is the audio of Hal Holbrook’s brief remarks at the conference. Recorded by Patrick Ober and combined with images from the beautiful campus of Elmira College.
I had witnessed first hand the star power of Hal Holbrook the night before. After a full day of conferencing, I meandered down toward the evening’s banquet a bit early. In front of the building I found Shelley Fisher Fishkin and Hal Holbrook quietly talking. Shelley introduced me to Hal and mentioned I lived in Austin. As Hal began to say something, we were suddenly surrounded by a group of scholars who had been momentarily possessed by the spirit of teenagers at a concert when they spot the band backstage. That is to say, I was elbowed out of the way by a gray-haired college professor who had been star struck.
Hal was now surrounded by a group of admirers jostling for his attention. In my memory of the event, they are waving pictures for him to sign and taking photos with old-fashioned flash cameras. My memory may not be exact. As I stood there awkwardly outside of circle, a momentary gap opened and Hal said to me, as if our conversation had not interrupted:
“I was in Austin recently.”
I replied: “I know. I saw you perform.”
“When was that?”
I pondered a moment. “Spring.”
“What is it now?”
“Sounds about right.”
And then Hal was engulfed by the adoring crowd of academics-turned-teenager.
The following night, the conference ended with a party at Quarry Farm, the summer house of the Langdon and Clemens family. I experienced another nerdy rockstar moment. While talking with Tom Quirk–no slouch of a Twain scholar himself–Lou Budd walked up and mistook me for a waiter. I will leave the story he told in explanation to his mistake out here, but it more than made up for any confusion.
After a wonderful dinner and a tour of the house, many people made the trek up the hill to the spot where Twain’s octagonal study sat. There are moments in one’s life that you know you will tell stories about for years–maybe 5 or 10 or even 20–but there are few stories you know, at the time, that you will tell for the rest of your life. For those of us who walked up the hill at Quarry Farm to the spot of Mark Twain’s study to smoke cigars, to sing songs, and to listen to Hal Holbrook tell stories, there is no doubt of the fact.
This just in: Brian Williams created the Internet. No, wait. That was Al Gore. It is all so confusing. One thing I am sure of, however, is that Brian Williams’s job as the anchor for NBC News is over. I hate for that to have happened, but I also must confess that I NEVER watched him on NBC News. Never. I do not watch any other nightly news program either. What for? I have the Internet, which Brian Williams created.
Brian Williams has been caught for being loose with the facts regarding his direct involvement with any number of stories. “Being loose with the facts” means that he has lied. He lied, though our culture prefers not to say such things when it comes to media figures and politicians. They misremember or somehow lose the details in the fog of war, fog of work, fog of aging, fog of hyper-saturated media consumption. Or, really, fog of ego.
Here is a fact: once a news correspondent, especially the anchor for a network news program, has opened him or herself up to ridicule for lying, it is over. Far more people than cared one way or another beforehand are ready to shout to the top of their lungs that television news must be preserved as a beacon of truth and dignity! The News must be preserved! Off with his head! We cannot tolerate such a challenge to the integrity of the television news media! One needs only to scan the memes created to mock his integrity to see how much damage has been done. Note this screenshot for a simple Google image search for “Brian Williams memes”:
Here is where I should elaborate and write about how the integrity of television news media has never been pristine, but I will avoid that for two reasons: I don’t want to spend the time, and neither do you. So, let’s just settle that point by nodding to the best satire of the so-called integrity of network news and consider it “enough said” on this question: Network, the wonderful film released in 1976, which, I think, was directed by Brian Williams, who was, ironically, shot in the leg during production. That’s how I remember it, anyway. Who can be sure?
Here is the real problem regarding Brian Williams: he likes talking about himself. That is his fatal flaw. But he is also a major figure in television news who now provides a valuable symbol for how journalists–post Gonzo, post Watergate, post Cable, post Internet, and, alas, post Cronkite–can only “report” the news if they see themselves as a crucial “part “of the news. “Here I am doing something active and immersive, as I tell you what’s happening…” Journalists are tourists forever showing us not the story behind the story but the story behind them, seemingly all forced by competition and bottom-line economics to perform and be seen rather than to provide NEWS. The narrative I instead of the reporting eye. Ah, but that ship sailed long ago. Again, Network tells us all we need to know about that.
The “reward” for humor is obvious—the payback for the humorist is when the audience laughs. The payback for the audience is also the laugh—it brightens an otherwise difficult day, relaxes as the laughter happens, and lets an audience leave the show, piece, or joke a bit happier than they were before. However, being the humorist is not without risk. What induces laughter in one person can offend another—this has been the legacy of humor since ancient times. Thus, those to whom humor is a profession must walk a fine line between taking a risk and reaping a reward.
Mark Twain found this out during his Whittier Birthday speech, delivered on 17 December 1877. In the speech, he told a story about four drunken miners whom he described such that without doubt, the characters referred to Whittier, the guest of honor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Oliver Wendell Holmes—often described as the “Boston Brahmins.” The joke fell through, and Twain was embarrassed by the reactions of the audience and the public when the speeches were published in the Boston Globe the following day. The Cincinnati Commercial asserted that Twain “lacked the instincts of a gentleman,” and even in the less conservative West the Rocky Mountain News called the speech “offensive to every intelligent reader.” Twain published an abject apology a week later, and even after 25 years the criticism still stung. Sometimes parodying a cultural icon is just too risky.
Twain’s 1877 faux pas illustrates just how difficult it is to gauge an audience’s reaction to material that the artist considers humorous. At this year’s Modern Language Association in Vancouver, three fine presenters delivered papers on the topic of “Comic Dimensions and Variety of Risk.” Jennifer Santos read her paper on Holocaust jokes in Epstein’s King of the Jews, Roberta Wolfson presented on the Canadian television show, Little Mosque on the Prairie, and John Lowe read his essay on Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint. Each presenter focused the talk on reception of the humor and the acceptable amount of risk a comedian or humorist can take and still reap the “reward” of laughter. Aside from hearing three wonderful examinations on a variety of humorous subjects, this panel generated discussion of the broader issue of risk versus reward every purveyor of humor must determine for any written or spoken performance. Who is allowed to joke about possibly sensitive events? From whom are we willing to accept a joke that takes a risk of offending?
For this, my final post on Humor in America this year, I would like to revisit the previous post, in which I made the case that by trivializing humor, we are overlooking one of the most persuasive elements in creating and/or maintaining social norms within our culture. In that post, I asserted that all humor is subversive. I would like to expand on that assertion, as I believe that when we think of subversive behaviors, actions, or texts, we almost always think of radical changes to our culture. In that case, we eliminate from our consideration humorists who, rather than attempting to shift a norm, are actually advocating the status quo.
In the “canon” of humor (a wide range to say the least) examples of authors who try to subvert the status quo abound. In my earlier post, I mentioned Benjamin Franklin’s “ Rules by Which a Great Empire May be Reduced to a Small One.”
In that piece, Franklin ‘s piece can be read on its face as advice to any country that believes administering its colonies is just too much trouble. All of the ways he suggests to reduce an empire’s size, however, require imposing hardship on the colonists. By the essay’s end, it seems clear that Franklin is speaking primarily about England and King George—all of his examples stem from the hardships the colonies are experiencing. A bit later (1868) Petroleum Vesuvius Nasby (David Ross Locke) takes to the Lyceum Circuit (an early version of the stand-up comedian) to advocate for suffrage for women primarily by portraying an ignorant back country man who is ostensibly arguing that women should not have the vote (page 660 in the referenced text).